Beauty and the Beast: Something There?
There is one moment in Bill Condon’s new live-action adaptation of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast that hasn’t garnered nearly enough attention. A moment that shocks the audience, jars the senses, and leaves many a viewer squirming in their seat. It’s a one-second shot that calls into question the modernization of Disney, the challenges that come along with injecting “realness” into animated film, and whether tales as old as time are best left untouched by the 21st century. Yes, you know exactly which moment I’m speaking about.
Or maybe you don’t. For it is not the revelation of the preening antagonist Gaston’s (Luke Evans) right-hand-man LeFou’s (Josh Gad) homosexuality that I speak of (I’m sorry, but shouldn’t the Stockholm-syndrome-induced-bestiality trouble you more?), but rather a moment midway through the movie during Belle’s (Emma Watson) performance of “Something There,” when the princess-to-be starts to realize that the Beast (Dan Stevens) has a tender side. She engages him in a flirtatious snowball fight, and after she pelts his massive frame with a well-aimed shot, he gathers mounds of snow and ice into his massive paws and launches a ball the size of a watermelon at Belle’s head with brute strength. The snow boulder slams into Belle’s face at full force, dealing her a blow that in the real world would surely kill her even before her skull slams into the stone floor beneath her. In the movie, of course, Belle is unharmed and continues her song, and the entire theater bursts into uproarious laughter of the sort you’d hear watching a blooper reel or America’s Funniest Home Videos.
At first, the cheap comedy of the scene troubled me, seemingly so out of place in the otherwise laugh-out-loud-free movie, but upon further reflection I realized that the film needs this moment – awkward, contradictory, and slapstick – to maintain its charm over the audience. We need to buy into the storyline of this imprisoned girl falling in love with her beastly captor, but we cannot do so without an appropriate amount of distance between our reality and that of the movie. The film lost some of that distance when it transformed the animation into a combination of convincing CGI and live-action; whereas the 1991 version of the Beast was an amorphous tapestry of browns with the gentle voice of a nobleman, the 2017 Beast confronts us in high definition with the yellow-stained tusks of a boar, the matted fur of a bison, and the bone-chilling growl of Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. To compensate for what would otherwise become an uncomfortable experience of watching a young girl fall in love with an animal, the film maintains as many innocent qualities of the animated world – the world of birds sewing dresses, of enchanted forests, of the Road Runner dropping anvils onto Wile E. Coyote – as the live-action medium will allow without becoming too ludicrous.
Given this premise, many of the other elements of the movie that initially seem to miss the mark begin to make more sense. The film makes a half-hearted attempt at complicating and strengthening Belle by portraying her as an aspiring inventor instead of a ditsy and absentminded daydreamer. But they dare not make Belle too independent or fierce, lest her eventual swoon into the arms of the Beast lose its credibility, so any spunk or ingenuity Belle exhibits at the start of the film dissolves as soon as she is taken captive. The duo’s bizarre magical trip to Belle’s childhood home in Paris, the site of her mother’s death at the hands of the Black Plague, ultimately serves as nothing more than a throwaway attempt to make the Beast seem more human.
The singing and dancing furniture are the saving grace of the film; while at times they seem more animatronic than animated (Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth loses too much humanity to the metallic workings of his clock), the furniture, more than anything, maintains the magical innocence of the original film and charms the viewer into the world of fantasy. Without Lumière’s (Ewan McGregor) over the top “Be Our Guest,” or the ensemble performance of “Days in the Sun,” the viewer would likely fall out of the film’s spell and question the problematic love story at its core.
The film employs these strategies to circumvent the dilemma lying at the heart of this remake: bringing the animated feature into live action requires injecting the story with realness without giving it too much credibility. Because we are not meant to think about this film. We are meant to be swept away into two hours of beautiful cinematography, flawless special effects, and heartwarming nostalgia. And in this, from the rose petals to the golden thread of Belle’s iconic ball gown, the film flourishes without question.